I was in India recently. It was a super short and rushed trip. With J’s one week spring break at school and husband-man’s leave-crisis, we could only steal 12 vacation days – travel time combined. After 5 long no-India years, we were ready to grab any chance that we’d get. No matter if it were just 3 days of escape or even if it meant we could go to India, set a foot there and fly back to The States. Honestly, we were ready to do anything that it takes this time. We craved to be in India and needed to soak in the feeling of being in our country.
But easier said than done. Less than two weeks…3 Indian cities to visit and then back on-board our international flight….marathon travels with a 1st grader and an 8-month old at hand…battling jet lag (our bio-clocks were still tuned to a 10.5 hour apart EST)…limiting kid’s exposure (and adjusting ourselves) as much to a sudden change in climate, social environment, different food…spending quality time with parents and younger brother…obliging to meet relatives, friends…and yet managing to steal a few moments to explore a couple places on our “must-visit” list. You think that was easy??? It wasn’t even close to doable. But then we did it and are still ALIVE! And managed to survive with a feeble smile. Then how our bodies had crashed and our systems shut-down when we reached South Brunswick last weekend is another story!
But amidst this madness during my trip, what was soothing and most comforting was to close my eyes and bury my tired, overworked head in my Father’s arms. I’ve never fallen asleep more easily, more quickly. And my Mom’s calming, tender embrace…It magically takes away all the stress my mind had accumulated through the time. I was like a not-quite-dead-plant that springs back to life rejuvenated when it is watered, provided fresh air, sees lots of warm sunshine and is cared for. Or like melting snow, washing myself of myself…
Mom still babies and feeds me the best food ever. Who else would pamper me more? What better, more nourishing in the world than Mom-made food? From among the numerous “Maa ke haath ka khana” I had this time, the one that stands out in taste, sourcing ease and its culinary simplicity has to be the Red Lentil Fritters she makes. Daal-er Bora, as we call them in Bengali, commonly accompanies the prominent sides of everyday Midday meals in households of West Bengal. Alternatively, they’re also great as tea-time snack. Baba (as I call my Dad), loves these fritters the most, and Ma makes them often for us.
I remember during my undergrad-school days, we had several students in class from other countries. Some of them were from very distant nations and flights were super expensive. So if in a year they had their parents flying in to visit them in India, then they’d only go back to their native land during the next annual vacation. It was hard on them that way and so such students would often group together for chats, little local trips, and fun, when the others in the class/hostel were gone home. T was a very close friend, classmate and a sweet girl from Mauritius. One of those annual college summer vacations, she wasn’t flying back to her parents. She said she was going to miss being at home with family and would hate being by herself in the hostel when most others from our class were gone – and I said “come on hop in with me”! She and I took the beautiful almost-unending 3-day train ride from Mangalore to central Uttar Pradesh, where my family was then based. Railway because those days, train tickets were the only ones we’d get student’s travel concessions on. The amazing Konkan railway is India’s most stunning rail route…it turned one of our best thrilliest train rides ever…the lustrous luxurious greenery, numerous tunnels, the heavenly food we picked up from stations, the cool wisp of air that blew our hairs as we gossiped and sang near the train’s open windows…it all spelled magic!
Came home and Maa spoilt us with the bestest of her kitchen manufactured. Gomm-Nom-Nom for a month…we ate them all…and frequently washed them down our throats with some cool homemade summer mocktails. T said that was one of the best vacations she had away from her family and promised to treat us with something special from her country. She went straight into the kitchen one day, asked for a few ingredients and boom! Out she walked with her version of our good old Red Lentil Fritters. “Can’t believe you just made Dal-er bora for us??” I said surprised. “What’s that?”, T asked curiously. “These are Gateau Piment (pronounced Gato Pima), the most popular Mauritian street-food and snack. You get them everywhere in my country. Almost a national comfort food.” Really?, I questioned. Yes, T said. “Gateau Piment translates to “Chilli Cakes” in Creole (a type of broken French spoken in Mauritius)”, she added. “And it’s because these lentil based fritters are made spicy – that’s how we Mauritians like it. Plus Gateau Piment is quite a favorite among the Seychellois people (natives of Seychelles Islands) too!”
That electric coincidence of similarity in cross-cultural cuisines and flavors!! And why not? What is there not to love?
T is one of the nicest people we know and had invited us to her country so many times. “If you don’t have any other reason, why don’t you and S just come over to Mauritius for your Honeymoon? You’ll love it here”, she had insisted. Well it’s been close to 9 years since our honeymoon now and back in 2007, we couldn’t afford a luxurious post-marriage break. S’s and my work didn’t allow us more than a 10 day break – 10 days it was for us to travel to the destination city, get married (Bengali marriages are a 4 day affair), honeymoon and get back in office! It was like a Tsunami we say – was all over before we realized. But we think of T fondly and often. And probably before long, there will be a day we’ll get to visit her in Mauritius. There’ll come a day for sure…
In the meantime, here’s how Ma makes the red lentil fritters (with pictures from her kitchen):
Red Lentil Fritters, Daal er Bora (Dal Vada) or Gateau Piment
- 1 cup Red Lentils or Masoor Dal (hulled and split variety)
- 3 to 4 tbsp finely chopped onions
- 3 tbsp washed and shredded Cilantro (Coriander leaves)
- 1 tsp finely chopped Indian hot green chilies (optional: use more chilies, or less, or none at all, based on your preference)
- Salt to taste
- Light Olive Oil for deep frying
- Wash the lentils and soak them overnight in about 2 cups of water (or soak for a minimum 5-6 hours)
- After the lentils have soaked in well, drain out the excess water
- In a blender, with minimal water (I do it with 1-2 tbsp of water), grind the soaked lentils into a smooth and fine paste
- Transfer the paste into a mixing bowl and using a large spoon, beat and mix the lentil paste for about 1-2 minutes or till the time you see the mixture turn lighter in color and become fluffier. To test, if the mixture is ready, scoop out a little of it (using your fingers or a teaspoon) and drop it back in the bowl — the “drop” should form “peaks” that do not deform on their own. This step aerates and fluffs the mixture to provide a nice texture to the fritters and adds the crisp.
- Add the chopped onions, green chilies and coriander leaves into the mixture. Adjust salt. Mix them well.
- Heat oil in a frying pan, and carefully drop teaspoon fulls of the lentil mixture. Space them out a little, so they don’t stick together. Drop as many as the frying pan can accommodate in a batch and deep-fry.
- When one side is done and nicely fried, carefully turn over the fritters and allow to cook.
- Once the fritters turn a uniform golden brown, take them out carefully on a kitchen towel, to soak out any excess oils.
- These fritters are best served and eaten when fresh and warm. Enjoy with your favorite dipping sauce!
- I usually run out of time and lazily fry the fritters without customarily beating the mixture, as Ma taught me to. The fritters would still taste good, although a little less crispier and a bit more dense in texture. Also, the more time you get to soak the lentils, the softer fritters you’ll get.
- For extra Crisp, add 1 tsp of rice flour into the mixture
- For softer fluffier Fritters, add 1/2 tsp of baking powder to the mixture. Adding baking powder results in light, and super fluffy fritters — the reason why I don’t use them is because I like my fritters more “meaty” and fulfilling!
- To punch in more spice and aroma, dry roast 1/2 tsp fennel seeds (saunf), 1/2 tsp carom seeds (ajwain), 1 tsp cumin seeds (jeera) and 1 tbsp coriander seeds (dhania). Take care not to char the seeds. Once nicely roasted, coarse grind them (or fine grind if you prefer) in a mortar and pestle. Add these ground roasted seeds in your lentil mixture. Additionally, finely shred 1 tbsp of fresh mint leaves (Pudina) to the mixture and mix the ingredients all together before you proceed to deep-fry.
- Substitutes: Add chopped scallions or Spring onions in place of regular onions and use dry red chili flakes instead of a the hot green chilies, for a little twist in taste. You could also use Other common hulled Indian lentils/daals to make these kind of fritters — they’d each taste different yet wonderful!
- Traditional Gateau Piment: to make the classic Gateau Piments, use Yellow Split Peas (Chana Dal), in place of red lentils and add about 1 tsp of dry roasted and coarse ground cumin seeds (or 1 tsp of cumin powder) to the lentil mixture. Use rest of the ingredients as mentioned and proceed with the recipe.
- To make Red Lentil Fritter Curry: Use a tablespoon to drop larger mixture balls into oil. After all the fritters have been fried, heat about 1/4th cup light olive oil in another frying pan. Throw in 1″ cinnamon stick (Dalchini), 5-6 cloves (lavang), 2 green cardamoms (choti elaichi), 1 black cardamom (Bari Elaichi) and 1 Bay leaf (Tejpata). As soon as the whole spices splutter, add about 1/3rd cup of chopped onions and fry until the onions are translucent. Add 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger root, 1/2 tsp grated garlic, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder (Haldi), and 2 tbsp of finely chopped tomatoes. Fry until the spices are cooked and then add 1 cup water. Adjust salt. Allow to boil for 1-2 minutes and then add the fritters in the pan. Simmer, and cover cook for about 1-2 minutes so the fritters can soak in some of the curry flavors. Remove from stove, garnish with chopped coriander leaves optionally add a dollop of clarified butter (ghee), and serve hot with your favorite Basmati rice, flavored rice, Naan or toasted bread.
- To make a unique chunky sandwich filling: Use a tablespoon to drop larger mixture balls into oil and fry in batches. In a blender, blend together 1/3rd cup chopped onions, 1 tbsp chopped tomatoes, 1/2 tsp chopped garlic, 1 tbsp chopped ginger and 1 tbsp yogurt. Add minimal water if required and blend into a smooth paste. Heat about 2-3 tbsp light olive oil in a frying pan and carefully pour the blended spices into the pan. Add 1/2 tsp of turmeric powder (haldi). Quickly stir and cook on medium-high heat to fry the spices well. When fried completely, the spices would have turned darker and drier and would leave oil from all sides. Turn the stove to low heat, pour in about 1/2 cup of water (or a little more if required), and adjust salt. (This must NOT have a runny gravy/curry, therefore please add controlled amounts of water here). Add the fritters to this and cover cook for 3-5 minutes. This preparation will be used as a filling/stuffing. Therefore, all this dish needs to built up is some moisture within the fried fritter and a dash of flavorful thick sauce. Add a dollop of butter. Ready Hoagie rolls (or whichever bread you’d like to use for the sandwiches). Spread some butter on one inner side, and a mild-medium spicy sauce on the other (like salsa, BBQ, mango-habanero, Mint/Coriander chutneys, etc.). Put in some shredded lettuce, tomato and cucumber slices. Add in sliced bell peppers. Now scoop in and line the fritters along the Hoagie roll length and add a little sauce in. Sink your teeth into the sandwich and relish!!